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Braemar Hospital is a proud Living Wage employer

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Hamilton’s Braemar Hospital recently became the first hospital in New Zealand to become an accredited Living Wage employer. Newly-appointed chief executive Fiona Michel explains why it was important…

In a career spanning three decades and including senior roles at some of New Zealand’s biggest companies and organisations Fiona Michel has seen the best of corporate practice.  

She has also witnessed things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.

One is stark evidence of New Zealand’s working poor. “I know at some organisations where I worked, employees who worked fulltime had then needed food parcels in the same week because their wages were not enough to feed their family. I find that unacceptable in New Zealand today.”

Which is why one of her first moves as Braemar’s new chief executive was to introduce the Living Wage of $22.75 an hour for the hospital’s lowest paid workers including cleaners, laundry staff, sterile supply, and kitchen services.

The rate, which is based on a range of measures including the cost of food, housing, transport, and childcare is $2.75 an hour above the minimum wage set by the Government and is calculated to be 68 per cent of the average hourly earnings in New Zealand. It is adjusted annually for inflation and will be reviewed
again in September.

Braemar is the first hospital in New Zealand to be accredited as a Living Wage employer. It will apply to around 13 per cent of the predominantly female workforce.

Fiona Michel says her decision was supported wholeheartedly by the Braemar board. “We are a charitable organisation fully owned by the Braemar Charitable Trust whose whole ethos is about doing good works to improve the health of the community. So that has to start at home. You have to make sure you are not party to the working poor phenomena when there is a clearly researched link between poverty and poor health outcomes. Once you’ve seen the data linking poverty to a lack of health, you can’t unknow it.”

A study by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission three years ago estimated 50,000 working households in New Zealand were living in poverty. As food prices and rents increase, food banks report they are seeing more people who are working but cannot afford to feed themselves.

Michel says her drivers of fairness and respect for
others were established during her childhood (“my mother was a great role model”) but validated over more than two decades in senior corporate roles by recognising what people needed to do their best work.  She has held senior roles with the Bank of New Zealand, the New Zealand Police, Auckland District Health Board and Vector, as well as directorships and leadership roles with more than a dozen private and not-for-profit organisations.   

Last year, because of her earlier work in the sector, she was shoulder-tapped by New Zealand Director of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield to help oversee the roll out of the country’s Covid-19 vaccination programme. In the same year, she was a finalist in the Women of Influence Awards.

She says each role has offered a new challenge and provided new skills. But a mentor once gave her wise advice. “She said, ‘you always have to have enough money to leave a job. You can’t compromise your values and ethics because you can’t afford to walk away’. The advice has always stuck with me. Somewhere along the road you have to have a line. I have left jobs where the values of the leader I reported to did not align with my own core values.”

The values at Braemar, captured in the phrase ‘the Braemar way’, were a large part of her decision to pursue the chief executive role. In her office there is a painting done by staff, which articulates what makes Braemar special. “It is a reminder to me of the values held here and the legacy of a hospital that has served the community well for 95 years.”

Study at Harvard Business School nine years ago convinced her she wanted to be a chief executive. Four years later, her role as Chief Human Resources Officer at Auckland DHB convinced her that her heart belonged in healthcare. “What I love about health is the selflessness. Their commitment to others and a willingness to put others first. I do not often see that in the corporate world.”

At Auckland DHB and the New Zealand Police, she also saw the impact of poverty on health. But she knew little things could make a difference. “I knew if I acquired a role where I could make a difference, I would make that my legacy. Braemar’s accreditation as a Living Wage employer was a step towards that goal.” 

But she also sees opportunities in her role to influence thinking beyond Braemar’s walls.

“The public health sector is incredibly restrained on what it can say. It gets slated by the public for the glacial speed of change and scrutinised over every cost. [But] the average New Zealander has no idea what is under the hood. Even before Covid became a thing, at Auckland DHB, there were well over a million patient interactions a year, and more than 200 languages walking in the door; 13 per cent speak no English at all. If, on top of that the institution is underfunded and under-resourced and you can’t even have a morning tea to bolster staff morale because it might end up on the front page of the paper as gratuitous use of public funds, that makes things very difficult. Yet, if we said [the health system problems] could all be solved in 12 months if we all paid an extra 10 per cent tax, that would cause outrage.”

She says, while Braemar is a private hospital, it is part of the health system, which provides opportunities to effect and influence change. “Sometimes there is more power on the fringe than in the centre. You have more latitude and with the support of the board, you can make decisions to move quickly to make commitments that make a difference. That is harder to do in a shared public system, particularly in the current format of health where many decisions can’t be made by a single DHB. They need to be made and the decision shared by 20 DHBs all of which have unique challenges. In the same way, if you tried to get 20 corporates together to get something done that would have an immediate financial impact on them. I don’t think they would do any better – but the outcome would be less public.”

She supports the intention of the country’s move to a single health service taking over the functions of district health boards. “I believe it will simplify and enable decision making to go faster and dismantle clunky systems that have been difficult to change under the current model.”   

She believes health providers in New Zealand – “both private and public” – need to work together for a common good. “I think there is a very old-fashioned view that the competitor is the company across the road. In healthcare, I could easily see my colleagues in the Waikato region and other similarly sized private hospitals as competitors. Indeed they are in many respects. But there is so much more we could do if we let go the concept of competition where there is more value in working collaboratively. In in this age, in a Covid context, where overseas institutions are offering New Zealanders opportunities, we should all be thinking collectively about how we can work together to retain and attract a highly skilled, highly motivated, happy workforce in New Zealand.”

“In a smaller hospital, sitting on the fringe, I have the ability to rally interest in those ideas when others are in survival mode just trying to keep the doors open.” 

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